A rambunctious protest and widespread criticism of the BBC were just some of the consequences of the British broadcaster’s decision last week to allow Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party (BNP) to take part in a televised debate.
Since Greece is a much more mature democracy, we do not experience such consternation. We put the leader and members of our own ultra-right wing nationalist party on TV almost on a daily basis, ask them soft questions, let them say what they like and nobody bats an eyelid. After all, that’s democracy.
Of course, the leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), Giorgos Karatzaferis, would reject any accusation of extremism, racism or fascism, allegations that have been leveled against Griffin and BNP.
Over the years, Karatzaferis has diligently tried to erase his party’s uncomfortable past. He now presents himself as the nationalist with the friendly face, the caring populist. But all the airbrushing in the world will not cover up the skeletons in LAOS’s closet, such as the fact that one of the party’s most prominent MPs, Makis Voridis, had previously been the leader of the Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), an ugly little anti-immigration, pro-death-penalty party that was officially affiliated with the BNP.
Voridis, one of several LAOS members with a dark past, also developed close ties with the leader of France’s far-right Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen. Shortly before the Hellenic Front was incorporated into LAOS, Voridis paraded Le Pen as a guest at his wedding.
Griffin and Karatzaferis can only dream of emulating the kind of success that saw Le Pen, the godfather of Europe’s far right, poll second in the French presidential elections of 2002. But Le Pen’s rise is absolutely relevant to the issue of how much coverage, if any, politicians like Griffin and Karatazferis should be given.
By Le Pen’s admission, “the hour that changed everything” for him was in 1984 when he took part in “L’heure de Verite,” a similar political program to “Question Time,” the show Griffin participated in last Thursday. The FN leader had been shunned by the media before then but following his appearance, the party increased its share of the vote in the subsequent European elections from 3.5 percent to 11 percent.
“Small fish become big so long as God gives them life,” said Le Pen. In 21st-century politics, this god is television. That’s why there’s been so much soul searching in Britain about whether Griffin should have been allowed to take part in a discussion involving mainstream politicians.
“When you put the BNP into the mainstream like that, they drag people onto their agenda,” said the Labour MP and first black female deputy to appear on “Question Time,” Diane Abbott. “The program has given Griffin unnecessary exposure, unnecessary credibility, and giving more credibility to a fascist party in the middle of a recession is a very dangerous thing.”
Abbot’s argument is powerful. Television gives politicians and parties a legitimacy they cannot get by handing out leaflets outside train stations or speaking at small gatherings in rural backwaters. If you’re on political talk shows with representatives of other parties then, in the eye of the viewer, you must be their equal. If you’re on TV, you’re part of the establishment. If you’re part of the establishment, then you can attract financing that can help you grow.
So, if Griffin can draw all this from one appearance on the BBC, what kind of boost is Karatzaferis getting from being the darling of morning shows on Greek television? The LAOS leader worked out some time ago that TV can help him present his party as a legitimate voice in Greek politics. His regular appearances have made him a figure of fun for many but LAOS performances in this year’s European elections and general elections show that some viewers have been tuning in to his populist message.
Even the BNP claimed that more than 3,000 people joined the party immediately after Griffin’s appearance – although given that more than 8 million people watched the program, it’s not really a figure to boast about.
In fact, momentary popularity seems a small price to pay to uphold one of the principles that underpins our democracy: the freedom of speech. After all, the BNP won two seats in June’s European elections and not allowing an elected party fair representation would be dicing with accepted democratic principles. “The true gift to the extreme right is to give them the opportunity to claim that they are being gagged while allowing them to carry on operating and incubating in the shadows,” said Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer weekly.
“Ultimately, the BBC was right about all this,” writes AA Gill in The Sunday Times. “It was a question of free speech and free speech is non-negotiable. It doesn’t come with caveats or committees or right-minded souls. It isn’t open only to reasonable people who hold a clubbable set of values. It can’t be taken from the mouths of those want to steal it from the mouths of others.
“Look at the list of the maligned dictators and murderous nutters who get to speak at the United Nations: Everyone has a right to a microphone.”
However, there’s a key difference between what British viewers saw last week and the Karatzaferis experience in Greece. Griffin was challenged by his fellow panelists, whose aim, as Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent put it “was to pry this limpet of strategic blandness from the rock and expose the unsightly muscle beneath.” Most importantly, though, Griffin had to face questions from the audience.
This produced the most telling moment of the night, when Griffin was confronted about the BNP’s policy of repatriation by a man born in Britain to Asian parents. “This is my country, where do you want me to go?” he asked, before suggesting that members of the audience collect money to buy Griffin a one-way ticket to the South Pole. “That’s a colorless landscape, it would suit you fine,” he told the BNP leader.
Greek politicians do not face this type of confrontation. Debates on Greek TV are usually sanitized coffee-house discussions, where the same old faces gather to spout the same old gibberish at the prompting of a very accommodating host. The presence of an audience that can show irreverence toward these inflated egos remains a foreign concept.
It’s here though, that the crux of the issue lies – although free speech should be cherished and defended, so should the right to challenge what is said. Monologues have no place in democracies and only play into the hands of those who direct their words at a specific audience.
Any publicity that Griffin gained from his appearance on “Question Time” was undone by his inability to rise to the challenges of the audience and his fellow panelists. “I have not been convicted of Holocaust denial,” was his response to a question about past comments that suggested the Holocaust was a myth. When asked about his 2000 meeting with David Duke, a Ku Klux Klan leader, Griffin responded by claiming that the KKK is “an almost totally nonviolent” organization.
The BNP leader’s floundering confirmed one of free speech’s most edifying features – although it provides you with the oxygen of publicity, it also gives you enough rope to choke yourself.
Griffin’s appearance was a two-fold victory for democracy because the freedom of speech was upheld but mostly because the principle that everyone, especially politicians, should be held directly accountable for what they say was immeasurably strengthened. Now, that’s democracy.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 30, 2009.